The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard are, as Hilary Mantel observes, "panoramic, intriguing and generous in their storytelling". They also make for ideal winter reading. So for this month's book club, we asked the literary critic Alex Peake-Tomkinson to tell us about the time she met this extraordinary author...
I had read Slipstream, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard’s brilliant –and apparently candid – memoir by the time I interviewed her in November 2013. It was less than two months before she died. I wondered what else there was to ask her: she had laid bare her disastrous first marriage to Peter Scott, son of the Antarctic explorer; her affair with Cecil Day-Lewis, whilst he was married to one of her closest friends; her acrimonious divorce from fellow writer Kingsley Amis, and so much more. It didn’t seem polite to invade her privacy further when she had already been so forthcoming about her life. She was 90, after all, and had just published the fifth and final volume of her Cazalet Chronicles. I consequently prepared some respectful questions about the book.
I hadn’t prepared myself, however for the full – and delightful – force of her personality. She was still beautiful, yes, and slightly frail but there was also something quite raffish about her – she still smoked, talked about sex with a degree of relish and whilst we were talking, I noticed that there was a bra folded up on her desk. She also met my gaze with a kind of challenge and said “What would you like to ask me?”
What I should have asked her was how she had achieved such equanimity. I had expected to encounter quite a melancholy character – her father tried to sexualise their relationship when she became an adolescent, as did a psychiatrist she later confided in over this and the pattern of abuse continued, right up until she met a conman who seduced her in her seventies. She has also never quite received her due as a writer, in spite of other writers such as Hilary Mantel championing her work.
Whilst she was honest about her disappointments, there was no rancour in her demeanour when I met her. She explained that she wrote All Change, her last book, in just a year with the support of her Romanian carer Teddy, her personal assistant Annabel and her daughter Nicola. “I had a steady regime which is what I wanted. I’ve been looking after other people all my life, as women do. We all need to be much more aware and aggressive about smug politicians saying equality reigns. It doesn’t at all – it doesn’t really in terms of equal pay and they’ve been saying that since 1945, equal pay for equal work and it’s an absolute nonsense, we don’t have that. And women are expected to cope with a household and go to work.” I asked how she had reconciled with Nicola, her daughter, who she gave birth to at 19 and left behind when her marriage ended 3 years later. “Beautifully”, she said, “but that’s all down to her, she broke that circle, we have a very good relationship.” Howard told me she found revisiting her past in her memoir painful. “I wanted to write the truth and the truth is not always pretty. I did some stupid and horrible things. I’ve tried not to excuse myself, the apology shows itself through you not repeating mistakes. One needs to learn and I am a slow learner, so I’m not proud of many things.”
Artemis Cooper’s fascinating subsequent biography of Howard revealed that Slipstream was, inevitably, only part of the truth. Cooper’s book, A Dangerous Innocence, explored Howard’s myopia, not least her failure to see that her friend Jill Balcon might find it hard to forgive her affair with her husband, Cecil Day-Lewis. Cooper also lays the blame for Howard’s low self-esteem with her hypercritical mother, a frustrated ballerina, who plainly preferred Howard’s brothers Robin and Colin (the latter known as Monkey). This seems a little unfair, given that Howard’s father – whom she had been close to – must have wrought his own damage on her, trying to engage her in clinches as she hit puberty, causing her obvious pain and confusion. Cooper also attempts to explore the question of how Howard could display such psychological insight in her fiction but utterly fail to read people in her own life. As she puts it: “it was because Howard lived at such an intense emotional pitch; because she rushed headlong into things without considering the risks; because she could not control her impulsive imagination: all these made her the novelist she was.” I have a feeling that Howard herself might have agreed with this conclusion.
As for my own experience of meeting Elizabeth Jane Howard, she told me that she had worked hard on getting to know herself. She ended by telling me what remains one of the most useful things I’ve ever heard: “If you hate yourself, you judge everybody in order to make them as awful as you.”
Words by Alex Peake-Tomkinson
Image by Laura Oosterbeek